All Saints' Church, East Finchley

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Homily for 22 (A)

“If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

The Church has always had a welcome suspicion of those who seek suffering for its own sake. Suffering, per se, is not God’s will for us. In fact, it is the opposite of God’s will for as us we see quite clearly in the healing, comforting and reconciling ministry of his Son.

In the early Church, martyrs had enormous prestige, too late for them to enjoy it, of course, and, as a result, many Christians longed to be martyrs. Origen, a Father of the Church, who flourished in the first half of the third century was notorious for his zeal for martyrdom and for mortification. He desire to be absolutely chaste and pure proved to be somewhat in conflict with his human nature and he went so far as physically to remove what he supposed to be the cause of his difficulties. There was much of the saint about him, but also much of the fanatic, and the Church has always been cautious about him and refrained from proclaiming him a canonical saint. His own Bishop from his home Diocese of Alexandria intervened when the Bishop of Caesarea ordained Origen priest, causing his orders to be revoked. The longing for suffering, even exemplary suffering, is highly psychologically suspect and is deeply linked to the darker side of human nature.

Jesus, throughout his earthly ministry, was, as we know, a dramatic eschatological preacher who sets out our life choices before us in a dramatic and clear-cut way. He says that we have to choose to serve God or not, that we have to choose between the values of earth and heaven. This is what he means by renouncing ourselves and taking up our cross and following him. But, let’s be clear, it is God that he is telling us to seek, not pain, and not suffering. Suffering comes, sometimes, of its own accord. If, through our faithfulness to God, we are persecuted, or we suffer, then that suffering is pleasing to God. If we live a simpler and more ascetic life because that, for us, is a way of getting closer to God, then that self-denial is pleasing to God. It is to God that Jesus is pointing, and it is the path to God that he is treading, and he will not step aside from it in order to avoid pain.

His firm response to Peter is very striking. Peter has said, “Heaven preserve you, Lord, this must not happen to you.” Jesus replies, “Get thee behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle in my path, because the way you think is not God’s way but man’s.” He sees in Peter’s concern the beginning of a turning away from God’s will, a shrinking from what God is asking. It is intolerable to the Lord who has already set his face towards Jerusalem and what awaits him. It is also intolerable to the human Jesus who has, probably, entered mentally into the garden of Gethsemane and is already asking his Father if this cup may not pass from him. His humanity had already weighed the temptation of seeking to avoid suffering, perhaps.

Scripture does not call us to suffering, but to healing. It calls us to slake our thirst, to refresh ourselves in our deepest humanity by coming to God who is the only one who can make us whole and fulfil our deepest nature.

“O God, you are my God, for you I long;
for you my soul is thirsting.
My body pines for you
Like a dry, weary land without water.”

as our psalm says today.

Our turning to God and becoming what we are called to be may bring passing difficulties, it may bring even little or big martyrdoms as we conform our recalcitrant wills to a pattern of holiness against which some of our instincts will rebel. This we must bear for the love of God, and for the love of our brothers and sisters who need us to be holy, who need us to be loving, who need us to deny ourselves in order that they too may thrive and come into the sunlight of God’s love. But to seek to suffer is a great error, and a sinful impulse. It is not suffering that we are called to seek, but grace, that is, the presence of God, and our reward is the joy of knowing that we are following God’s will.

“O for a closer walk with God,
A calm and heavenly frame,
A light to shine upon the road
That leads me to the Lamb.”

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